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The truth of a journey is that the vast and mysterious lands, the terra incognita, you set out to explore, in the end, becomes yourself. Every grain of grief and longing, love, regret, triumph, slips quietly into your suitcase. Harper had learned that at nineteen, a scattered girl full of woebegone and madness who made a pilgrimage to Paris to forget. But there is no escaping yourself. No drug, no distraction, works indefinitely. 

            More than twenty years later, she was in yet another foreign country, and whether she’d gotten there by running toward or away, is debatable. Georgia was supposed to salvage her career and cure her loneliness. Nothing worked out the way she thought it would. A different story unfolded. The whole thing could even be comical, depending on how you told it, and if the story was only about her, which it wasn’t. Harper’s own story would become just one strand in a great tapestry of private chronicles and historical episodes she would spend nine months untangling, then weaving together again, in an attempt to understand some tiny, subtle thing which was the echo of a bigger, profound thing, which she had no idea how to find. Are we mixing metaphors here? Ah well, life is messy. Anyway, this is the thing, this is the beauty part  our stories give shape to our experience, which creates a delicate structure holding the essence of who we are. And sometimes, our stories can only be illuminated and understood, within a larger narrative; the play within the play, as it were.

            Walk with me; the story begins like this. 


Chapter 1 Preface  


September 2018


            In those first heady days, roaming through the twisting streets of Tbilisi, Harper Hanigan was brimming with ambition and optimism. She was almost frantic for a fresh start, new surroundings, different air to breathe. It had been a dark, miserable year, and the prospect of returning to Georgia was the pinprick of sunlight which kept her going. Maybe she should have gotten to work directly after arriving, but she didn’t. Leaning out the window of the cable car as it soared above Vake Park, Harper breathed deeply and thought of Gia’s parting words, “Listen girl, when you get back to Tbilisi, relax, you hear me? I’ll deal with professor Blakewell. And by God, hop in bed with that man of yours. Blakewell can wait for the edits. It won’t kill him.”   Harper’s furnished flat was in the fashionable Vake district named after the park. It felt indolent and romantic, with meandering tree-lined streets where the sidewalks lifted and cracked, and old, ornate apartment buildings with twisted iron balconies and laundry lines. Weather still warm, Harper slipped on a pale blue sundress and wound her way through vibrant street markets inhaling the colors and smells of harvest season. A tall blond in a sea of delicate, raven-haired women, men on the street noticed her. Though she might not admit it, she enjoyed the attention. At forty-two, Harper was not yet invisible to men, but her presence was fading for them, like an image on an old Polaroid. She passed lanyards of dried fruit and marigolds swinging from faded striped awnings, mud-spattered potatoes tottering in clumsy piles beside apples and walnuts, and mounds of gleaming, ripe tomatoes. Peddlers sliced pomegranates in half to display the ruby seeds inside. Whenever she saw one, open and glistening like a lusty invitation, Harper wondered if O’Keeffe ever painted a pomegranate. 

            Her first trip to Georgia’s intoxicating capital city was on a summer’s research trip in 2017. Harper fell in love with the small, quixotic country, its layered mysteries, the food, and the people. That summer she also met the three remarkable women who now agreed to be unofficial cultural advisors, translators, community liaisons, and all-round champions of Harper’s new research endeavor. It was Friday afternoon, at the end of Harper’s first week back in town, when they arrived at the door of her new apartment for the first project meeting. 

            Magda dropped her backpack on a table near the door and rummaged around for a moment.  

“Okay, I brought dessert. This is a new, gourmet chocolate bar  it’s supposed to have tiramisu in it, or something,” she rolled her eyes sarcastically. “But tiramisu isn’t Georgian. You know that, right?” 

Grinning, Magda held up two brightly colored packets stuck together with red tape. “And this, this is kid’s stuff. You know, crap candy.  But I love it. Okay, here it is.” She thrust the candy at Harper, “Am I early?”  

Sebine and Nina arrived moments later carrying a bag of perfectly ripe, golden grapes. Sebine’s brilliant green eyes flashed with excitement, then she smiled shyly. “The vegetable man said these came from Kakheti this morning; they are very fresh. Here,” she said, lifting her hands. The grapes smelled earthy and sweet. They smelled like Indian summer. 

            Nina breezed into the living room, turning slowly, her long black skirt twirling around her ankles. She sighed, “Oh Harper, I loooove your apartment. There’s so much light.  Are you unpacked already?” 

            “Yep,” she smiled, pointing to the bookshelf.

            In her tiny, sunlit kitchen, Harper rinsed the delicate grapes, enjoying their coolness and weight in her hands. On a tin platter, her impromptu charcuterie board, Harper set them beside a fat wedge of smoked sulguni, fresh figs drizzled with honey, sliced apples, a roll of rich salami, salted nuts, and warm shoti, a Georgia style baguette.  In the center, curled like rosebuds, were the badrijani nigvzit, purchased from a delicatessen near her flat. Harper smiled, remembering the first time she tasted the heavenly eggplant and walnut rolls, and wondered if it was possible, she’d actually come all the way back to Georgia just for those.  “Open the wine someone!” she called from the kitchen. Feeling happier than she had in months, a rush of excitement washed over her as she stepped into the living room with her platter of offerings. 

            On the coffee table, two bottles of Château Mukharani Grappe Noir stood beside an old 

 “Oh, good wine,” Nina purred, pulling a crisp packet of cigarettes from her bag, and settling herself on a pillow. Sebine took off her shoes and pulled a wooden chair near the sofa. 

            Magda scribbled something in the notebook on her lap. Lifting it up she said, “Look guys, I’ve got a new journal so we can keep the notes from our meetings.”

            Sebine chuckled, “What’s your first note?”

            “Harper begins meeting with food and wine, like a good Georgian.” 

            The tray still in her hands, Harper paused, smiling at the three women. They were her friends, and she felt so damn lucky. 


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